What’s more irritating than wasps at a picnic? Maybe nothing, because wasps are the worst. But equal, or a very close second, are vegans at a barbecue. Not a vegan barbecue, which is a whole other mess, no vegans at a traditional, men round fire, burning meat, while women make salads and secretly cook spare meat in the oven, barbecue. So often the vegan guest is unexpected, a friend of an official invitee, throwing the hosts hosts into panic when they wonder what they can feed them. Invariably the salads all contain contain bacon or cheese, and of course the Pavlova is off limits. With luck the vegans will have brought their own meat substitute products which they will proudly tell you, taste as good as real meat. They don’t, they’re lying. They taste of wood-chips and glue. But who cares. Everyone can relax. Trouble is, such is the social setting of a barbecue, at some point the vegan will talk to you and your guests and you can bet they will talk about their vegan lifestyle, no doubt in an attempt to make everyone feel guilty about eating meat. It is this preaching that can dampen the spirit of a barbecue and makes the burgers taste less of beef and cheese and more of shame and regret. But it needn’t be like this. It is time that we stop believing that veganism can save the world.
I will not argue that the facts don’t make a strong case for the benefits of a vegan lifestyle in a world where meat consumption and production is harming the environment. Facts like, how producing one kilo of beef requires 70 times as much land and 15 times as much water compared to growing one kilo of vegetables, or how 40% of agriculture emissions (rising to 65% if you take into account manure) come from animals. And how deforestation is wiping out the amazon rainforest to create space to grow soy; of which 75% of all soy grown is used to feed animals. These facts are strong and certainly seem to give vegans the moral upper hand in their quest to convert us all to veganism.
But there is a glitch to this plan, and it’s the distinct lack of understanding and consideration of the implications of what would happen if we were all to switch to a vegan diet. It wouldn’t be the first time that we have been told to choose a path only for those asking us to follow them, to turn around the next day, shrug their shoulders, and have no clue as to where the path actually leads. It is common sense to look at the consequences of actions before we act. Not after. This seems to be missing from the vegan manifesto.
Let’s begin with farmers. Those rearing livestock will suddenly have no jobs. Whole communities that rely on the farming of livestock will have the heart ripped out of them. Then we have the fishermen too. Surely no one would wish to intentionally take the livelihood away from their fellow countrymen, except vegans seem to be asking for exactly that. They may believe that livestock farmers can simply switch to growing crops instead but this belief is flawed on two fronts. Firstly, a lot of farmland is only suitable for grazing and couldn’t be converted to arable land. Secondly there is strong evidence that grazing pastures have a positive impact on biodiversity above and below ground, while also acting as carbon sinks to absorb greenhouse gases. We have already lost 1/3 the world’s arable land in the past 40 years and it is not because of livestock farming, but instead due to overuse of strong fertilisers, continual ploughing of fields and lack of crop rotation. If we convert pastures without addressing these issues then arable land will continue to diminish and it will be harder to grow the amount of food the world needs, especially if we no longer farm animals. Not using all the land available to us is absurd.
No meat, no feed needed for animals, no need to cut down swathes of rainforest to make way for soy plantations – that seems to be the general argument put forward. But deforestation doesn’t exist only because of our farming of meat. Palm oil, biofuels and now, because every Tom, Dick and Harry is eating avocados on toast, in salads and in chocolate cakes, Mexico is clearing acres of forest to make space for avocado farms. Demand will always cause problems. It is our greed that creates problems. Humans are destructive and will find an alternative to livestock farming that can damage the earth just as much. We are good like that. Instead we should be looking for alternative feeds for our animals, insects and pasture for example, with less reliance on soy and grains; while concurrently looking for solutions to our destructive patterns of farming, whether it is meat, vegetables or palm oil.
Finally let’s just say, for kicks and giggles, that we all should become vegans. The whole world, 6 ½ billion of us! How do we even begin to implement that? Make eating meat and dairy illegal? Launch health campaigns similar to those for smoking? Or implement a meat tax? We will always break rules. We still smoke despite knowing it is bad for us and the jury is still out on whether taxes work or just whether they simply punish those already struggling to feed themselves.
If you want to be vegan, please carry on, nobody should stop you. But the belief that the world will be saved if we all stop eating meat and dairy is a pipedream, worse than that, it is ignorant, and has no place in a diverse world. To those that eat copious amounts of cheap meat, who don’t care about how it is produced, who avoid the news about the risk of antibiotic resistance to humans, and the environmental damage caused by unsustainable farming methods, then you are just as ignorant, possibly more so.
We do need to eat less meat, about half of our current consumption of roughly 1kg per person per week. But at the same time we need to change our farming and production methods. As consumers we need to support any attempts to do so. This means sourcing products where the producers aim for sustainability. Look for pasture fed beef and lamb, at the very least it should be higher welfare or from a source you know and trust. It is not just meat. We need to increase variety across our whole diet by eating more vegetables and pulses such as lentils and beans, and a wider variety of fish, not just salmon and cod. And of course, stop eating so many bloody avocados! There is not a one size fits all solution but there are collective solutions that we can all start to implement. We’re better together. Really we are. We should listen this time.